Various socio-religious movements in British India not only reformed Indians but also led to the rise of nationalism in India. Read to know more about the various social and religious movements which transformed Indian society in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
In the 6-part framework to study modern Indian History, we have so far covered:
- India in 1750.
- British Expansion.
- The changes introduced by the British.
- Popular Uprisings and Revolts against the British
In this article (5th part), we discuss the socio-religious movements in British India.
The changes brought by the British like modern education resulted in many social and religious reform movements in India.
The 1800s and 1900s saw more and more people appreciating the values of Indian culture, but they were also vocal enough to reject the bad elements in it. Many leaders emerged to reform Indian society. They mostly aspired to revive the Indian society with modern values.
Keshub Chandra Sen, for example, said: “What we see around us today is a fallen nation – a nation whose primitive greatness lies buried in ruins”.
Swami Vivekananda described the condition of the Indians then, in the following words: “Moving about here and there emaciated figures of young and old in tattered rags, whose faces bear deep-cut lines of the despair and poverty of hundreds of years; cows, bullocks, buffaloes common everywhere – aye, the same melancholy look in their eyes, the same feeble physique, on the wayside, refuse and dirt; – this is our present-day India.”
Filled with the desire to adapt their society to the requirements of the modem world of science, democracy and nationalism, social leaders then set out to reform their traditional religions. This was because religion in those times was a basic part of people’s life and there could be little social reform without religious reform.
Also read: Basavanna: Renowned Social Reformer
Classification of Social and Religious Movements which reformed India
The socio-religious movements in India can be studied under different heads.
One way to classify the movements is based on religions.
There were: (1) Hindu reform movements (2) Muslim reform movements (3) Sikh reform movements and (4) Parsi reform movements.
The organisations or movements can be sub-classified based on their locations – ie. movements in (1) East India (2) West India (3) South India and (4) North India.
Apart from religious movements, there were movements to uplift women and backward classes.
Initially, we shall see the major movements with elements of religion in them.
The Hindu Reform Movements
There were various Hindu reform movements in (1) East India (2) West India (3) South India and (4) North India.
Hindu Reform Movements in Eastern India (Bengal)
Bengal was the centre of many reform organisations like Brahmo Samaj.
(1) Brahmo Samaj by Raja Ramohun Roy
- In 1828, Raja Rammohun Roy founded Brahmo Sabha which was later renamed ‘Brahma Samaj‘.
- The Brahmo Samaj made an effort to reform the Hindu religion by removing abuses and by basing it on the worship of one God and on the teachings of the Vedas and Upanishads even though it repudiated the doctrine of the infallibility of the Vedas.
- Brahmos were basically opposed to idolatry and superstitious practices and rituals, in fact to the entire Brahmanical system.
- The Brahmos were also great social reformers. They actively opposed the caste system and child marriage and supported the general uplift of women, including widow remarriage, and the spread of modem education to men and women.
- The Brahmo tradition of Raja Rammohun Roy was carried forward after 1843 by Devendranath Tagore and after 1866 by Keshub Chandra Sen.
(2) Tattvabodhini Sabha and Adi Brahmo Samaj by Debendranath Tagore
- Debendranath Tagore, father of Rabindranath Tagore formed Tattvabodhini Sabha in 1839.
- He later gave a new life to Brahmo Samaj when he joined it in 1842.
- He devoted himself to the systematic study of India’s past with a rational outlook.
- He propagated Roy’s ideas.
(3) Brahmo Samaj of India by Keshab Chandra Sen
- Keshab Chandra Sen joined Brahmo Samaj in 1858 and was made acharya by Debendranath Tagore.
- He was instrumental in popularising Brahmo Samaj outside Bengal in the United Provinces, Punjab, Bombay and Madras.
- In 1863, Keshab was instrumental in the formation of Prarthana Samaj in Bombay which relied on education and persuasion and not on direct confrontation with Hindu Orthodoxy.
- Keshab Sen was a strong believer in religious universalism. He often stated that “Our position is not that truths are to be found in all religious, but that all established religions of the world are true”.
- His radicalism brought him into opposition with Debendranath. In 1866, the Samaj was formally divided into Adi Brahmo Samaj (headed by Debendranath Tagore) and the Brahmo Samaj of India (headed by Keshab Chandra Sen)
- In 1873 due to the inexplicable act of getting his own 13-year-old daughter married by following all Orthodox Hindurituals, Brahmo Samaj of India was again split.
(4) Young Bengal Movement by Henry Derozio
- Henry taught at Hindu College from 1826-31.
- Inspired by French Revolution, he taught his pupils to think freely, rationally and question all authority.
(5) Ramakrishna Movement by Swami Vivekananda
- Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1834-86) was a saintly person who sought religious salvation in the traditional ways of renunciation, meditation and devotion (bhakti).
- He emphasised that there were many roads to God and salvation and that service of man was service of God, for man was the embodiment of God.
- Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was his disciple.
- Vivekanda popularised Ramakrishna’s religious messages. He tried to put it in a form that would suit the needs of contemporary Indian society.
- Vivekanda wrote in 1898; “For our own motherland a junction of the two great systems, Hinduism and Islam… is the only hope”.
- At the same time, he was convinced of the superior approach of the Indian philosophical tradition. He himself subscribed to Vedanta which he declared to be a fully rational system.
- Vivekananda criticised Indians for having lost touch with the rest of the world and became stagnant and mummified.
- Vivekananda condemned the caste system and the Hindu emphasis on rituals and superstitions.
- He urged people to imbibe the spirit of liberty, equality and free-thinking.
- Vivekananda was a great humanist. Shocked by the poverty, misery and suffering of the common people of the country, he wrote: “The only God in whom I believe, the sum total of all souls, and above all, my God the wicked, my God the afflicted, my God the poor of all races”
- To the educated Indians, he said: So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor, who having been educated at their expense, pays not the least heed to them”
- In 1897, Vivekananda founded Ramakrishna Mission to carry on humanitarian relief and social work. It thus laid emphasis on social good or social service.
Hindu Reform Movements in Western India (Maharashtra)
Religious reforms started in Bombay in 1840 by the Parmahans Mandali which aimed at fighting idolatry and the caste system. Perhaps the earliest religious reformer in western India was Gopal Hari Deshmukh, known popularly as ‘Lokahitwadi’, who wrote in Marathi. He made powerful rationalist attacks on Hindu orthodoxy and preached religious and social equality.
(1) Prarthana Samaj by Dadoba Pandurang and Atmaram Pandurang
Prarthana Samaj or “Prayer Society” in Sanskrit, was a movement for religious and social reform in Bombay, India, based on earlier reform movements.
Prarthana Samaj was founded by the Dadoba Pandurang and his brother Atmaram Pandurang in 1863 when Keshub Chandra Sen visited Maharashtra, with an aim to make people believe in one God and worship only one God.
It became popular after Mahadev Govind Ranade joined. Two of its great leaders were G Bhandarkar, the famous Sanskrit scholar and historian, and Mahadev Govind Ranade (1842-1901).
The main reformers were the intellectuals who advocated reforms of the social system of the Hindus in the light of modern knowledge.
It was spread to southern India by noted Telugu reformer and writer, Kandukuri Veeresalingam.
One of the greatest rationalist thinkers of modem India, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, also lived and worked in Maharashtra at this time.
(2) Arya Samaj by Swami Dayanand Dayanand Saraswati
- The Arya Samaj undertook the task of reforming the Hindu religion in the west and north India.
- It was founded in 1875 by Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-83).
- Swami Dayanand believed that selfish and ignorant priests had perverted Hindu religion with the aid of the Puranas which, he said, were full of false teachings.
- For his own inspiration, Swami Dayanand went to the Vedas which he considered infallible, being the inspired word of God, and as the fountain of all knowledge.
- Some of Swami Dayanand’s followers later started a network of school and colleges in the country to impart education on western lines. Lala Hansraj played a leading part in this effort.
- In 1902, Swami Shradhananda started the Gurukul near Hardwar to propagate the more traditional ideals of education.
- One of Arya Samaj’s objectives was to prevent the conversion of Hindus to other religions. This led it to start a crusade against other religions. This crusade became a contributory factor in the growth of communalism in India in the 20th century.
Hindu Reform Movements in South India (Maharashtra)
The Theosophical Society was a major Hindu Reform movement with roots in Maharashtra.
The Theosophical Society by Madam H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel S. Olcott
- The Theosophical Society was founded in the United States by Madam H.P. Blavatsky and Colonel S. Olcott, who later came to India and founded the headquarters of the Society at Adyar near Madras in 1886.
- The Theosophist movement soon grew in India as a result of the leadership given to it by Mrs Annie Besant who had come to India in 1893.
- The Theosophists advocated the revival and strengthening of the ancient religions of Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. They recognised the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul.
- One of Mrs. Besant’s many achievements in India was the establishment of the Central Hindu School at Banaras which was later developed by Madan Mohan Malaviya into the Benaras Hindu University.
Religious reforms among Muslims
There were many prominent leaders like Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Iqbal who influenced the Muslim population in India.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Aligarh School
- The most important reformer among the Muslims was Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98).
- In his view, any interpretation of the Quran that conflicted with human reason, science, or nature was in reality a misinterpretation.
- All his life he struggled against blind obedience to tradition, dependence on custom, ignorance and irrationalism.
- Sayyid Ahmad Khan believed that the religious and social life of the Muslims could be improved only by imbibing modem western scientific knowledge and culture. Therefore promotion of modem education remained his priority throughout his life.
- In 1875 he founded at Aligarh the Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College as a centre for spreading western sciences and culture. Later, this College grew into the Aligarh Muslim University.
- Sayyid Ahmad’s reformist zeal also embraced the social sphere. He urged Muslims to give up medieval customs and ways of thought and behaviour.
- In particular, he wrote in favour of raising women’s status in society and advocated the removal of purdah and the spread of education among women.
- He also condemned the customs of polygamy and easy divorce.
- He opposed communal friction.
- Appealing to Hindus and Muslims to unite, he said in 1883, “Now both of us live on the air of India, drink the holy waters of the Ganga and Yamuna. We both feed upon the products of the Indian soil.”
- However, towards the end of his life, he began to talk of Hindu domination to prevent his followers from joining the rising national movement.
Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938)
- Muhammad Iqbal was one of the greatest poets of modem India.
- He profoundly influenced the philosophical and religious outlook of the younger generation of Muslims as well as of Hindus.
Religious Reforms among the Parsis
The prominent figures among Parsis include Naoroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naoroji, S.S. Bengalee etc.
Rehnumai Mazdayasan Sabha or Religious Reform Association
In 1851, the Rehnumai Mazdayasan Sabha or Religious Reform Association was started by Naoroji Furdonji, Dadabhai Naoroji, S.S. Bengalee, and others.
Religious Reforms among the Sikhs
Religious reforms among the Sikhs started at the end of the 19th century when the Khalsa College was started at Amritsar. But the efforts gained momentum after 1920 when the Akali Movement arose in Punjab.
Akali Movement (Punjab)
- The main aim of the Akalis was to purify the management of the gurudwaras or Sikh shrines. These gurudwaras had been heavily endowed with land and money by devout Sikhs.
- The Sikh masses led by the Akalis started a powerful satyagraha against the mahants and the Government which aided them (1921).
Social reform movements to uplift women and backward castes
The major effect of national awakening in the 19th century was seen in the field of social reform. The newly educated persons increasingly revolted against rigid social conventions and outdated customs.
In the 20th century, and especially after 1919, the national movement became the main propagator of social reform.
Increasingly, the reformers took recourse to propaganda in the Indian language to reach the masses.
They also used novels, dramas, poetry, short stories, the Press and, in the thirties, the cinema to spread their views.
The social reform movements tried in the main to achieve two objectives (1) emancipation of women and extension of equal rights to them and (2) removal of caste rigidities and in particular the abolition of untouchability.
Movements to uplift Women
Emancipation means being free from restraint, control, or the power of another.
It is true that occasionally women of the character and personality of Razia Sultana, Chand Bibi, or Ahilyabai Holkar arose in India. But they were exceptions to the general pattern, and do not in any way change the picture.
After the 1880s, when Dufferin hospitals (named after Lady Dufferin, the wife of the Viceroy) were started, efforts were made to make modern medicine and child delivery techniques available to Indian women.
Women played an active and important role in the struggle for freedom.
They participated in large numbers in the agitation against the partition of Bengal and in the Home Rule movement.
Sarojini Naidu, the famous poetess, became the president of the National Congress. Several women became ministers or parliamentary secretaries in the popular ministries of 1937.
They started many organisations and institutions for this purpose, the most outstanding of which was the All India Women’s Conference founded in 1927.
The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 made the daughter an equal co-heir with the son.
The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 permitted the dissolution of marriage on specific grounds.
Movements to uplift Backward Caste
The caste system was another major target of attack for the social reform movement. The Hindus were at this time divided into numerous castes.
The untouchables suffered from numerous and severe disabilities and restrictions. He could not enter the Hindu temples or study the shastras. In some parts of the country, particularly in the south, their very shadow was to be avoided.
An untouchable’s dress, food, place of residence, all were carefully regulated. He could not draw water from wells and tanks used by the higher castes; he could do so only from wells and tanks specially reserved for untouchables.
In modern India, it became a major obstacle to the growth of a united-nation-feeling and the spread of democracy.
However, the British rule had many elements which gradually undermined the caste system.
The urbanisation and the introduction of modem industries, railways and buses made it difficult to prevent mass contact among persons of different castes, especially in the cities. Modem commerce and industry opened new fields of economic activity to all.
The growth of the national movement too played a significant role in weakening the caste system.
Leaders like Gandhi kept the abolition of untouchability at the forefront of all public activities.
In 1932, Gandhiji founded the All India Harijan Sangh for the purpose. His campaign for the “root and branch removal of untouchability” was based on the grounds of humanism and reason.
In Maharashtra, Jyotiba Phule led a lifelong movement against Brahmanical religious authority as part of his struggle against upper caste domination.
B.R. Ambedkar, who belonged to one of the scheduled castes, devoted his entire life to fighting against caste tyranny,
He organised the All India Scheduled Castes Federation for the purpose. Several other scheduled caste leaders founded the All India Depressed Classes Association.
In Kerala, Sri Narayan Guru organised a lifelong struggle against the caste system.
The Indian Constitution, in 1950, provided the legal framework for the final abolition of untouchability.
The Impact of Socio-Religious Movements on Indians
There were positive and negative impacts of the socio-religious movements in India.
The positive aspects of the socio-religious movements in India
The religious reform movements of modem times had an underlying unity. Most of them were based on the twin doctrines of Reason (Rationalism) and Humanism, though they also sometimes tended to appeal to faith and ancient authority to bolster their appeal.
They opposed the ritualistic, superstitious, irrational and obscurantist elements in Indian religion.
Swami Vivekananda once said: “Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason through which every science justifies itself”
Justice Ranade came to the conclusion that society as a living organism is constantly changing and can never go back to the past.
The best of reformers argued that modem ideas and culture could be best imbibed by integrating them into Indian cultural streams.
The religious reform movements helped many Indians to come to terms with the modem world. These movements led to the emergence of Indian nationalism and eventually the freedom struggle.
The negative aspects of the socio-religious movements in India
Two negative aspects of the religious reform movements may also be noted.
(1) Firstly, all of them catered to the needs of a small percentage of the population-the urban middle and upper classes.
(2) The second limitation, which later became a major negative factor, was the tendency to look backwards, appeal to past greatness, and rely on scriptural authority. Appeals to past greatness created false pride and smugness, while the habit of finding a ‘Golden Age’ in the past acted as a check on the full acceptance of modem science and hampered the effort to improve the present.
The evil aspects of this phenomenon became apparent when it was found that, along with a rapid rise of national consciousness, another consciousness – communal consciousness – had begun to rise among the middle classes.
Many other factors were certainly responsible for the birth of communalism in modem times; but undoubtedly, the nature of the religious reform movements also contributed to it.
This article is the 5th part of the article series on Modern Indian History. Click the link to read the 6-part framework to study modern Indian History. This is an easy-to-learn approach to master the history of modern India as a story.